Reflections on the 3rd International Conference on Bowen Family Systems Theory

The Lapland of northern Sweden proved to be an idyllic location for the 3rd International Conference.  Like the waters, reindeer and midnight sun intrinsic to the land, observations of differentiation of self were integral to the many excellent presentations I attended.

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Learning Bowen Theory

My first acquaintance with the thinking of Murray Bowen was through reading “On the Differentiation of Self,” the paper in which Dr. Bowen presents his theory and describes how it guided his effort toward differentiation of self in his own family. In my first couple of readings, I understood little of the theory or what Dr. Bowen was doing on those visits home, but I heard him clearly on the results. His family became calmer and more flexible. Personal communication opened up. Seriousness gave way to humor.

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The Survival and Adaptation of the African American Family Mignonette Nunn Keller, PhD Summary of Dr. Keller’s presentation at the CFC Summer Conference in 2021

“How does a slave develop a self in an oppressive dehumanizing system forcing him into a no-self position?” a question posed by Murray Bowen, MD was addressed in the conference “The Survival and Adaptation of the African American Family”, a presentation by Mignonette Nunn Keller, PhD. at the Center for Family Consultation, July 23, 2021.  Bowen’s conceptualization of chronic anxiety and “differentiation of self” traced the early years of Aaron Guice, his family experiences with two slave owners, and his relationships with his second owner’s family.  Aaron Guice was sold at approximately age 14 to his second owner.  He was able to exercise principled oriented decisions in delaying marriage and children, being able to accept both his black and white heritage and continuing to have positive relationships with both black and white family members.  From this writer’s perspective, some positive external experiences and his being a free spirit and having some distance from the emotional system he grew in enabled him to develop sufficient “self” to withstand the stresses and losses he experienced growing up.

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Process, Process, Process

You may be familiar with the old saying about the three most important things in real estate:  Location, location, location.  This means there is one most important thing in every aspect of our lives. In Bowen theory, the cornerstone concept of differentiation of self holds that pivotal position.  To deeply know oneself and work toward a more separate yet connected self is the key.  Being focused on the act of becoming more differentiated requires thinking about process.  How do you see yourself and your reactivity more clearly and objectively? And then, how do you work to respond differently when you observe high reactivity?

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Anxiety, Stress and Triangles: Pressurized Human Relationship

Dan Papero’s review of the fundamentals, such as the automatic and instinctual reactions within the emotional system, the preferential sensitivity among the family members, and the constant flow and counter flow of emotions within the system was helpful in understanding triangles.  How the forces of togetherness and individuation are always in play, how anxiety increases the pressure towards togetherness and how too much closeness results in distancing.  The mechanisms of distancing include conflict, overfunctioning/underfunctioning and projection.  They are utilized to control the emotional flow and maintain regulation. Triangles operate to maintain equilibrium.  The example of the spinning top continuing to adjust the balance of the threesome in the triangle was helpful.

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The Caste System and The Emotional System

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste:  The origins of our discontents, is a hard book.  Her words confront us with a hard truth about human behavior:  that humans are capable of imposing extreme cruelty and suffering on other humans and have done so at many points in history.  With brilliant writing and thorough research on three caste systems–American slavery and its aftermath, Nazi Germany, and the millennia-long caste system of India–she traces the forces that drive human behavior to destructive extremes.

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The Use of Force: Law Enforcement as a Reflection of Society

The use of physical force is an instinctual response to a real or perceived threat.  In a moment of fear, who has not found themselves raising a voice, or raising an arm, or seeking a way to constrain the other and protect self?  The use of force to bring conflict under control should be a last resort and applied judiciously, yet with rising emotional intensity, it easily becomes the first resort, setting in motion an escalation of conflict. 

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Bowen Theory Conferences Adapt to Pandemic Conditions

For all of its tragic impacts on humanity, the coronavirus pandemic is presenting us with an opportunity and impetus to take time out for serious thinking.  Since the time of social distancing began several weeks ago, two important Bowen theory network events have taken place:  the annual Spring Conference of the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family (April 3-4) and the 37th Midwest Symposium of the Center for Family Consultation (May 1).  Both were originally planned as onsite conferences but converted to online.  In so doing, the conferences became very different experiences for all involved–planners, presenters, and audience members—and much was learned in the process.  This essay offers thoughts on what was learned, particularly in the area of human behavior and human response to threat.          

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Family, the Brain, and Differentiation of Self

The concept of differentiation of self entails two primary aspects based on the observations of Dr. Bowen. The first is that individuals vary in the degree to which they differentiate or develop emotional autonomy in relation to the family in which they grew up. The second aspect is the degree to which an individual’s higher cortical systems, referred to by Bowen as the intellectual system, differentiate over the course of development. The differentiation of this function underlies an individual’s capacity to utilize the intellectual system in self-regulation and self-direction over their life course. This presentation will describe the above and place these processes in the context of the co-evolution of the family and the brain.

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Meditating towards Differentiation of Self

Bowen has theorized, that each human being is the culmination of the mass of ancestors who have preceded her, each human being generations in the making, If we assume that is true, then, like a diamond, it may take a fair amount of excavating before we uncover the shiny nugget of “self” be-neath all the accumulated rock. When we look at humans, we tend to focus on their individual be-haviors or at best the individual within the context of their nuclear family. Bowen advocated getting information on as many as five generations of family history, in order to understand the patterns we observe. He advocated doing this so that we might see the patterns that have been active in our families and begin to distinguish between patterns that we have chosen and ones we may have simply inherited. Kerr in his most recent book describes one of the components of differentiation of self as “the phenomenon of thoughts and feelings operating as a working team”, those who are least differentiated have achieved the least separation from behavior driven purely by instinctual responses to others. Achieving more “self” requires distinguishing between one’s thoughts and one’s feelings, so that one’s actions more closely reflect one’s thinking, and are not merely a reflection of how we are feeling at any given moment.

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